Theatres Must See Audiences As Collaborators

Sarah Frankcom

As artistic director of Manchester’s Royal Exchange, I often hear what individuals make of our shows. I want to think out loud with audiences and have a real dialogue about what theatre is and what the Exchange is for.

Theatre can’t happen without an audience. It comes to life in the moment. It is experienced by those who haven’t been involved in its creation. A piece of work can seem full of exciting ideas and potential when it’s being planned or is at the dress rehearsal, but it can die when it finally meets its audience. It can also burst into life and make something happen that is mysterious and special and entirely unexpected.

In the time I have been making theatre, or been a member of an audience, I have never stop being surprised, frustrated, taken aback and moved by how audiences respond to what they see. You can never second-guess what audiences will do, and often, because an audience is a group of individuals, I am excited and provoked by their contradictory responses.

As a director and artistic director, I regularly encounter individual members of our audience at the Royal Exchange in Manchester: you tell me what you like and what you don’t like; that the toilets need looking at; that the studio theatre chairs are uncomfortable. And sometimes you’ve quietly expressed and shared things that have burned deep inside me, and have inspired me in the work that I make and the vision that I have for this theatre.

A Night at the Theatre – a sleepover at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

A Night at the Theatre – a sleepover at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

There’s the man who, as the lights came up after A View from the Bridge, turned and asked me: “How did they know what it’s like to be me?” The couple who walked out in the middle of a new play, telling me – well, shouting at me – that what they had seen was “worse than the war”. The woman who described what she had got from a play so eloquently and precisely that the playwright and I were completely speechless. There was another man with his four children who, as we were waiting for the show to start, said: “We have spent a bloody fortune on our tickets and this is the only thing we will do as a family for six months so it had better be good.” It was, thankfully. The man who told me in a resigned way: “That’s two hours of my life that I won’t get back.” The woman who, offering me a scotch egg at the interval, told me that theatre for her was like “feeling out loud”. The group of young people visiting the Exchange for the first time, who agreed with their youth leader that if they weren’t enjoying As You Like It, they could leave at the interval. At the end of the second half, they asked me if the same show would be on tomorrow. When I said yes, one of them said very seriously: “Yes but it won’t be the same will it? Because we won’t be there.”

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